September 27, 2009

NYFF '09: Sweetgrass, Ghost Town, To Die Like a Man

by Vadim Rizov

There was much skepticism and whining about this year's New York Film Festival line-up before it started—the usual cries of gratuitous elitism from some quarters, general frustration from others about the sheer obscurity of some of the line-up. Okay, maybe that was just me looking at a line-up initially full of bewildering unknown quantities. But NYFF is almost like two separate fests: the public screenings, sure, but also the press screenings, which start a little over a week before the actual fest and run concurrently. In the week we've been going, I've seen three very strong films—all without distribution, all worthy of your buck—and am now officially on board for the rest. Three capsules to guide you on your way:


Sweetgrass (2009, Ilisa Barbash, Lucien Castaing-Taylor).

When a movie is described as a documentary about sheep-herding, that gives you a strange amount of confidence; NYFF is, generally speaking, not in the piety sweepstakes of programming worthy but dull docs, so a certain amount of rigor seems guaranteed. Still, it was temping to bolt at the first shot of Sweetgrass, whose awful consumer-grade video took me straight back to the bad old days of 2001 - 03, when documentaries finally made the leap from 16mm to camcorder amateurishness, and pretty much everything was painful to watch. But Barbash and Castaing-Taylor establish pretty quickly that they know exactly what they're doing with their medium. This is ostensibly a straightforward chronicle of the shepherds of Big Timber, Montana and their last ever grazing drive against public lands before the storied tradition ends. The video quality falls into three categories: the neutral and unobjectionable, the savvy and the slightly painful. At night, when the shepherds fire into pitch-black forests, the barely perceptible video crackle is tensely accentuated by white gunshot blasts as potent as anything Michael Mann's cooked up; during the day, when shooting from afar (and some shots are Werner Herzog-majestic in their physical scale), video gives figures against the landscape a sharp edge that's almost outlined. There's a few shots I wish could be cut—since nothing is narratively "essential," anything that doesn't look good really should go, and at some points the video just looks shoddy blown up onto 35mm—but they're minimal detractions.

This is almost certainly the least sentimental American movie about Nature since Gerry: this could read like an activist doc about preserving natural tradition, but there's really nothing within the actual footage to suggest that. It's not that nature's red in tooth and claw; it just doesn't care if you admire it. It's also shockingly unsentimental about sheep: not the fuzzy, adorable baa-lambs of nursery rhymes, but dumb, obstinate creatures who can be a real pain. Part masculine comedy of swearing, part formalist experiment in which not a real word is spoken for the first half-hour, it's anything but cloistered. I was certain I was in good hands during an early sheep-shearing sequence: the camera roams in restless panning arcs—side to side, top to bottom—as sheep are separated from their wool with industrial speed and thoroughness. The noise is metal-factory intense, but slowly I began picking up a backbeat; was it an elegant soundscape, or tinny radio? As the drums became clearer, it became clear: "Highway to Hell" it is, and I was rocking out. The footage veers between the abstractly compelling, the naturally stunning and the occasionally surreal: you may never forget the sight of a hundreds-strong herd marching past the Radio Shack on a small town street. The shepherds are a pragmatic, profane lot: an eloquently despairing, absolutely unquotable stream of invective against recalcitrant sheep in the mountains becomes even more comic as the camera zooms back to dwarf everyone, back to make a wry joke about the gap between the ostensible majesty of nature and the sheer pain of navigating it.

Genre-wise, there's really nothing like it in American film; it is, however, of a piece with the numerous French films on the same subject (Raymond Depardon's Profiles of Farmers series, Will It Snow For Christmas?, Samuel Collerdey's The Apprentice). I've long wondered why America—certainly not short on rural areas and citizens—has constantly failed to document those areas. This is a start, even if Castaing-Taylor is British. Sweetgrass is set to open at the Film Forum on January 13; other distribution prospects, sadly, remain unknown.

Ghost Town

Ghost Town (2008, Zhao Daoyang).

Ghost Town begins in approved festival-film fashion: an immaculately framed shot of a city street, majestically distant from everyone, held for eons. "There's nothing worth filming here," someone says; har har. The gauntlet's been thrown down: over the course of three hours, Daoyang proves just how wrong that assessment is. The focus is Zhiziluo, a village in southwest China, and the title has twin meanings. Zhiziluo's a place where nothing happens and economic prospects range from the grim to the non-existent; it's also a place where the local church and pagan traditions co-exist equally and those ghosts can be taken quite literally. I know the difference between a film pleasantly encouraging my attention to wander and when I'm impatiently bored; as with Jeanne Dielman (except, okay, not quite on the same scale), this does the latter. It's hypnotic, but it won't wear you out over its length: you can float in and out. Daoyang's camera is handheld and indifferent to strict composition, instead using distance and duration to construct his film. It's novelistically vast in scope and physically tactile. If it sounds like I'm temporizing, it's just that it's hard to describe the film's main pleasures, which are as much about taking in, in bracing fashion, the environment of Zhiziluo as any of the people we meet.

The first 50 minutes are a prelude of sorts, a portrait of the town's Christian community, culminating in a Christmas day gathering inside the church: Daoyang patiently scans over the packed assemblage, just taking in expressive faces for a good four or five minutes. It's also the oddest of father-son portraits between Pastor John and his father, the terrifying and near-Old Testament John the Elder; the son explains at one point that when it rained through a hole in his roof, the Elder accused his son of climbing on top and pouring water through the hole. It's the first of many tangled relationships Daoyang lays out, all increasingly painful. The footage can seem haphazardly assembled, but give it time: from father and son to son with no parents at all, it's all laid out in a retrospectively eloquent arc.

Reference is made to the government coming in at some point and kicking villagers out of what are officially not "their" houses, and Chairman Mao makes an ominous climactic appearance, but this is really no China that's hit western screens before: neither the world of grinding agricultural poverty nor the fast-paced capitalist boomland, and very far removed indeed from the tragedies of displacement due to the Three Gorges Dam. Zhiziluo is a town that's been left to hang to dry on its own. The texture is of a very impersonal, essence-of-Balzac kind of novel, one where people are sketched relatively quickly but always weaved into an ever-expanding social backdrop. It should go without saying that, like any film made by halfway intelligent people, this is no monolithically doom-and-gloom document: the site of a drunken reprobate being threatened with a good cane-thrashing by an 80-something looking woman is one for the drunken Frederick Exley files. But adequately describing all the sights and events would take more time to read than to watch the film. The real question is: do you implicitly trust on faith that a semi-rigorous 3-hour Chinese small-town documentary sounds like a good idea? If so, you belong here. Ghost Town is hypnotic and far easier to watch than you suspect.

To Die Like a Man

To Die Like a Man (2009, João Pedro Rodrigues).

To Die Like a Man is both aggressively formal and aggressively queer; to a certain extent, it seems to genuinely not care if straight audiences want to be there or not. A drag queen melodrama that turns into a hard-to-define Something Else halfway through, it bifurcates itself like the finest of Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul's films; the diving line is between exquisitely-composed hysteria and the truly mysterious. The first half is just fine, if occasionally dozy-making if you're not on its wavelength: Tonia (Fernando Santos) is a drag queen forever wavering about committing to the final sex change, which pisses off his/her junkie boyfriend Rosário (Alexander David). There are screams, thefts, confrontations, abortive blowjobs, fabulous dance routines, bitchy fights over wigs, the whole deal: not my deal by temperament, I'm afraid, but exquisitely filmed enough to cover up all but the most repetitive dramatic developments. If you know the film's about drag queens, the first shot is truly disorienting: an unblinking close-up of a man having decidedly non-glam make-up applied to him. Drag queen or soldier? The latter, it emerges, but Rodrigues has already eloquently begone laying the visual language for parsing the potential fluidity of gender. He also has the gift for shooting films with the austerity of an art-house master while pacing the drama within the frames faster than Fassbinder; a rare combination indeed.

In the second half, something happens; I don't think I can reveal what it is. Like Joe with more penises, the action retreats to a forest, at which point Tonia and Rosário are decisively yanked out of their spiraling rut by one Maria Bakker (Gonçalo Ferreira De Almeida), an absolutely incredible drag queen who transcends surface affectation and camp devotion to reach a mystical, Oscar Wilde-level of self-assurance and poise. And then... what to say? There are color filters. There are musical numbers. There is, finally [VAGUE SPOILER], a very literal rendering of the title, to a gut-wrenching extent. Rodrigues is prone to the overly literal metaphor, but in ways that are craftier than they seem. Tonia's the one who has her shit together, Rosário the one constantly going through withdrawal and back again; they're mirrored by a pair of dogs, one a domestic house-pet and the other a rough-and-tumble street dog. Clear enough which animal mirrors which person, until it isn't: Rodrigues is at least as ambivalent and fluid about gender (re)construction as Judith Butler, and ultimately he arrives at the intersection point between visceral life-and-death matters and academic contemplations of sexuality. The results are staggering.

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Posted by ahillis at September 27, 2009 1:02 PM